Baghjan, September 14 (PTI): For more than 100 days, the fire raged, a tall blaze of angry orange that killed the fish in ponds and streams, destroyed homes and turned to ash the green farmlands around the Baghjan oil field in Assam’s Tinsukia district.
The fire at an Oil India Ltd well that started with oil and natural gas gushing out uncontrollably on May 27 and went up in flames on June 9 was controlled on Sunday, said reports.
But the trauma will take much longer to subside, said residents of the area around the oil field that has 17 oil wells and five gas wells.
The sight of the flames that coloured the skies saffron and the sound of the blaze have led to people in Baghjan village complaining of disorientation, sleepless nights and confusion.
“It was like hearing 100 helicopters constantly over my head,” said Manoj Hazarika who hasn’t slept properly in weeks.
The tales find wide echo in the village of nearly 500 residents, many who earned their living fishing, tilling their fields, some with betel nut trees, and working in the tea gardens close by. It is a village ruined, said locals, estimating that several homes have been completely burnt and about 500 hectares of land destroyed.
Kajoli Hazarika, whose home is just about 200 metres from well no 5 which caught fire, added that the area has also been experiencing frequent tremors since the blowout in June.
"When the massive fire burnt a huge amount of oxygen in the periphery, an air vacuum was created. This resulted in sudden air movement and created minor local tremors,” an OIL official explained.
The scientific explanation does little to comfort Kajoli Saikia, who recounts in vivid detail the day it all began.
It was 10:30 am on May 27, she was going about her usual household chores when a series of “earthquakes” and a strange, viscous rain began. A massive sound followed, forcing the villagers to step out of their homes to figure out what was happening.
“The tin roof of my house, the windows and doors began to shake,” Saikia said.
In a couple of days, the fish in ponds and streams were dead and ashen white, added Prakash Hazarika. He said he has seen cows and goats giving birth to dead calves and kids, fish dying and birds struggling to take flight.
A carcass of a cow at the edge of a wooded area is a sign of the ravages the fire has wrought.
The “strange rain” described by locals was oil and natural gas pouring down on the houses, fields and water bodies around the oil field. Thirteen days later, it turned into an inferno.
Dilip Mala, a labourer who was working at a construction site rushed to attend to his pregnant wife Sumitra, when he saw fire engulf the surrounding areas. There was chaos and panic, he said.
Villagers rushed to get hold of whatever belongings they could from their homes and fled. He said he did not think the fire could be controlled but firefighters were able to douse the flames before they could spread further.
Two firefighters died in the process due to burns and injuries while on duty. But the gas well fire continued to spew flames into the air, a tall, narrow blaze that contaminated the waters and fields and changed the micro climate of the area.
The picturesque village, with tea gardens all around and the oil field in its vicinity, lies in the Maguri Motapung wetland area. Maguri is home to numerous species of birds, including migratory birds, and animals and a critical fisheries resource for the area.
As their parents and others come to terms with their losses, children can be seen looking for fish swimming in the waters. But there are none to be seen.
Lumps of crude oil have settled in the streams flowing into the wetland, killing the fish and posing a danger to humans and animals who drink water from it.
A bamboo hut bears mute witness to the desperation of the times. A bed and broken fishing nets are a reminder of what was once a bustling home. Locals in the area said 15-20 such huts in the area have been burnt or abandoned since the blowout.
“The damage to the ecosystem has been grave and largely irreparable, the ultimate impact of which will be felt in terms of ecological imbalances and lost livelihood opportunities,” said a statement by Wetlands International South Asia, an NGO dedicated to the conservation and sustainable management of wetlands in South Asia region.
“The fact that this accident has taken place when the world is reeling under the impact of COVID-19, signaling our broken relationship with nature, is striking.”
The Dibru-Saikhowa National Park,a designated biosphere reserve on the banks of the Brahmaputra and home to tigers, wild horses and other animals, is close to the blowout site.
Hoping to pick up the pieces of their lives, the villagers have gathered around the deputy commissioner’s office in Tinsukia, about 40 km away.
For more than two weeks, they have been staging a sit-in to demand better shelter and future of their children, and justice for those who have lost their lives. Kajoli Hazarika, for instance, said she has received compensation of Rs 20 lakh plus Rs 30,000 along with 11 other families whose properties were completely ravaged in the fire.
But that is just not enough for the more than six acres of farmland that has been reduced to ashes. She said she doesn’’t know what to do with the money – buy land, make a house or find an alternative livelihood.
Prakash Hazarika echoes her distress. “Even after compensation, what will I do anywhere else. My life is here. Here I can sustain myself by fishing and other activities. Anywhere else, I will be a misfit. I am worried about my two children and their future,” he said.
The Assam Pollution Control Board had issued a closure notice to the Baghjan Oil field in June on the grounds that OIL had been operating without obtaining prior consent to establish and operate from the Board.
Arnab Kishore Bordoloi, an OIL engineer, lost his life due to high voltage electric shock on September 9, 2020. Two OIL officials were suspended for alleged negligence of duty at the gas well site, while a show cause notice was sent to John Energy Pvt Ltd, the outsourced private operator of the well.